Crew Competence – Another “Spot On” Observation by Michael Grey

Monday 2 November 2009 Lloyds List 

Crew competence still a cause for concern

“It is all very well to criticise regulations and the regulators, but so often the real blame for crew incompetence must surely lie with whoever employed the crew”

YEARS ago, and long before the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code had banished the casual caller from port premises, two of us were sitting on a pile of railway sleepers in an East Anglian port watching a small chemical tanker arrive. It was a smart, apparently well-kept little ship, with a pilot aboard. It approached the quay with every sign that the berthing would be undertaken speedily and without incident. Then began what can only be described as a comedy routine, as at both ends of the vessel, the crew gave a truly memorable performance of mind-blowing incompetence.

The pilot had made his approach perfectly, but the seafarers forward and aft seemed quite incapable of getting lines ashore. Forward, they seemed unable to fasten on a heaving line, despite helpful advice from the linesman on the quay and a torrent of invective from the master on the bridge. The officers in charge of this command performance seemed to be totally incapable of issuing any orders and stood with expressions of despair on their faces, occasionally waving their arms. Heaving lines fell into the water, the ship fell off the quay, the crew milled about on the forecastle and poop, tripping over ropes and over their own big feet. They seemed terrified of putting any weight on the lines and the ship moved up and down the quay as first one end, then the other appeared dominant. Eventually, we saw the pilot on the foredeck helping to turn up the backspring. It was clearly the only way he was going to get home. There was another bout of drama as the gangway was dropped on the quay with a crash. It was clear that whoever had signed on the crew of this chemical carrier had not bothered to ascertain that the seafarers were able. “Perhaps they were chemists,” said my companion as the performance ended.

Pilots, as the chap who had brought in this vessel would clearly have agreed, are good judges of crew competence. From the moment they climb the ladder, after first giving it a huge tug to make sure somebody has bothered to lash it on, until the moment they step ashore in the case of an inbound ship, they watch the crew in one of its busiest phases. While they will get to know regular callers, they have to take the competence of strangers on trust.

Port state control inspectors are called upon to ascertain the competence of the crew, which they do by perhaps asking them some sample questions, and if they really want to test them, asking them to lower a boat into the water, or start the emergency fire pump. But if they really wanted to ascertain the safety of that ship, (because this is all about safety and not mere bureaucracy) they would board with the pilot and observe the performance as the crew is effectively put to the test.

There is a worrying article in the latest issue of the Nautical Institute Seaways magazine from a senior pilot in the New South Wales port of Newcastle, a port which has seen more than its fair share of events, from great armadas of bulkers anchored offshore to the spectacular grounding of the Pasha Bulker, which dragged an anchor in a gale and blew ashore. Malcolm Goodfellow works in an exceptionally busy port in which a high proportion of the traffic is large dry bulk carriers entering light and departing fully laden. Margins for error are very small, and potential for a fairly frightful disaster substantial. Not that Newcastle is anything unique in this respect. In his article, Capt Goodfellow complains that in many cases, crew competence is often inadequate for the job in hand, and while the presence of the pilot is supposed to supplement the bridge team, “in many instances, the pilot’s presence on the bridge reduces the effective bridge team to one: the pilot himself”.

This is not just opinion from a pilot who might have an axe to grind. His arguments are backed up by two separate surveys by Newcastle Port Corp pilots, one relating to crew competence and the other relating to anchoring practice and general precautions in the roadstead off the port.

Some of the findings from the first report were alarming in the extreme. These ranged from the 15% of bridge teams which were unable to operate their own equipment properly, 68% not monitoring the helm during pilotage, 15% having difficulty mooring the vessel (those chemists may have emigrated?) and 11% have English language difficulties. While only 8% of helmsmen have trouble steering, just one hamfisted and confused person at the wheel can make the most almighty mess with a 50 m beam ship in a channel that is 180 m wide. Put into perspective, 8% of the helmsmen being off-colour means that more than 260 of these chaps per annum could cause difficulties to the pilots. The same percentage could not handle tugs correctly. In 85% of cases, there was no attempt to tell the pilot about the ship’s characteristics, which seems rather remiss. There was, worryingly, a lot more along these lines.

There is absolutely no suggestion that Newcastle is unique in attracting large numbers of ships crewed by incompetents, and the experience will undoubtedly mirror the concern felt in ports all over the world. Indeed, the scrutiny of ships entering this important Australian export terminal might be considered quite close, with the main exporters now focusing increasingly on ship quality in the chartered tonnage that is taken on. There are also certain local sensitivities that go back to the ‘Ships of Shame’ inquiry, when there was some evidence that dry bulkers (at a time when many of the operators were barely breaking even) were not the best-run vessels arriving on the Australian coast.

But that was then and this is now. Capt Goodfellow suggests that the findings in Newcastle ought to encourage the same sort of inquiry in other ports throughout the world, to provide a more universal assessment of competence.

THE Newcastle pilots are not unusual in what they expect when they board a ship, where they hope for a competent bridge team, a helmsman who can actually steer with some precision and understand their helm orders. They want the deck crew to be able to take the tug lines promptly and safely, as the ship enters a narrow channel at some considerable speed. They want the ship to be made fast as it reaches the berth. None of it, as they say, is rocket science, or an unreasonable expectation. It seems sad that they are disappointed so often.

Almost on cue, the same week that Seaways appeared, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau was publishing a report on an incident in Port Hedland waters, where a departing fully laden capesize went aground after suffering a steering gear failure within minutes of letting go all its tugs. Iron King was suffering one of these maddening intermittent steering gear faults, and the investigators were critical of the inability of the ship team to put in hand their emergency procedures fast enough. It was clearly one of those incidents that pilots and shipmasters have nightmares about. It was not so much a competency issue, however.

But the message is coming in about the quality of ship’s crews from around the world. The ‘simple’ matter of an ability to steer a ship has been causing concern to pilots from the Suez Canal to Yokohama, and competency complaints are a regular feature in P&I Club publications and accident investigators’ reports.

Capt Goodfellow suggests that contributing factors include varying training standards under STCW 78/95, inefficient implementation by flag states, vessel crewing levels, operational pressures on masters and crews and modern vessel complexities. He adds “and the rest”. It is true that a ship lying securely alongside is the wrong venue for an adequate port state inspection, when, if the paperwork is adequate and the appearance of the ship passable, the inspectors may not dig any deeper.

As I so often complain, it is all very well to criticise regulations and the regulators, but so often the real blame for crew incompetence must surely lie with whoever employed the crew. Everyone blames everyone else about such matters, but surely an owner who signs on incompetents is as culpable as anyone else. The owner might hold up his hands and blame the crew manager, or point out that all the crew paperwork was perfect, but it is still his responsibility to ensure that people who take his ship to sea are capable of doing the job, and have been properly trained.

If the helmsman who speaks no known language answers a five degrees port helm order by hurling the wheel hard over to starboard, with the ship running into Newcastle at 10 knots and the tugs not yet connected, with the master’s mind in neutral and the OOW making himself a cup of tea, the owner ought to bear some of the responsibility for the carnage. Is that so very unreasonable?

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